It took nearly 20 years for the Ukulele Orchestra to become an overnight sensation but on the eve of their 30th anniversary, soprano player Dave Suich was on hand to talk fly infestations and German Queen covers.
Picture the scene: a group of sharp-dressed young men and women playing an instrument more associated with comedy, sleeping in a single room in a lowly Nottingham youth hostel where the best you could hope for was a blanket each. They are preparing for their next gig in a dive bar and happen to be sharing the bill with Mr Methane, an act who dresses up like a superhero and farts.
It’s a far cry from where they are today, and with nearly 30 years of experience on the road the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have many a tale to tell.
Starting out in 1985 when founding member George Hinchcliffe bought long-time player Kitty Lux a soprano ukulele, the realisation that you could orchestrate anything if it emitted a range of sounds was when a group of like-minded individuals were brought together.
Soprano player Dave Suich has been in the Ukulele Orchestra half of his life and joined the orchestra soon after they started. Coming from a comedy background, he was well suited to join the Ukes.
“I was in a comedy duo called Bimbo Two and Hot Foot where I started playing uke. We played at the Tunnel Club which was a hecklers club, so once you’ve gone through that you know how to defend yourself,” he says.
But it has taken nearly 20 years for them to become an overnight success, thanks in no small part to their unusual style of covers, including a West Country take on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and a head banging Born to be Wild.
“When we started it wasn’t very common to play the wrong song on the wrong instrument like Born to be Wild on uke, but now you can go to any fair and see a German oompah band playing the hits of Queen and no one bats an eyelid,” Suich says.
It’s the originality of their cover songs which has helped the Ukulele Orchestra gain such popularity over the last decade.
“The major emotion that people feel when they see us is relief, because they think ‘Thank God it isn’t what I thought it might be like,’” says Suich.
“We don’t play very much ukulele or banjo style stuff – it’s pop songs played on ukes. What you expect we don’t play,” he adds.
But for Suich, 56, the rise in popularity of the instrument has helped, and he believes the Ukulele Orchestra have been a catalyst in turning it from a novelty to something a little more trendy.
“There’s a new generation of people who don’t know that ukes are funny,” he says. “When we started it was very difficult to get a quality ukulele, and now it is much easier. I think that is partly coming off the back of the demand.
“You wouldn’t say the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were why people like guitars, but they have got something to do with it, and we have when it comes to ukes,” he adds.
Suich’s weapon of choice is a Gibson Style II 1949 Soprano but he also plays something a little more unusual.
“I have been playing a sopranino which is up an octave, and now in our act we have smaller than small ukuleles or ‘microleles’ as we have christened them.”
Their latest jaunt, A Fistful of Ukes, has seen the group tackle a range of modern hits more at home with their younger fans.
“Some of the recent ones we’ve done are Get Lucky and Roadrunner. They’re going down very well,” Suich says.
Since they have been on the road for so long, the Ukulele Orchestra are happy to keep their shows informal and light-hearted, but one gig in particular stands out for Suich.
“We played Lake Zurich in biblical conditions, and it was so humid that all the mayflies came out, and we were covered with small flies. There were so many that every time you changed fingering for another chord you killed another three.”
On stage they sport the traditional orchestra attire of evening dresses and dinner jackets while maintaining a chatty persona somewhat at odds with their formal presentation, but Suich believes it keeps it memorable for audiences, and has played a part in their longevity.
And when it comes to their success, Suich maintains a characteristic humility.
“We are always very modest about it, but we do blow our own trumpet now. Someone’s got to!”